Houston’s Dissent, Part Six

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Previous Parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

I ended yesterday with Sam Houston asking what calamity befell that justified abandoning a solemn constitutional pact between the sections, the Missouri Compromise, and opening the Great Plains to slavery. No such need had existed in far more dangerous times for the Union, all of four years prior. In that case, no prior settlement explicitly covered slavery in the Mexican Cession.

Houston would probably have joined Douglas in condemning free soil men like David Wilmot for getting in the way of extending the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific. Douglas repeated that charge to defend himself on Kansas-Nebraska. The argument over whether or not the free soilers opened Pandora’s box in the late 1840s could go around in circles forever. Many, though not all, of them opposed the Mexican War on the grounds that taking land from Mexico inherently reopened the issue, so they could point their fingers right back at the pro-war and proslavery contingent.

One could make a case either way.  Southern politicians, with rare exceptions like Thomas Hart Benton, had their fingers fairly glued to antislavery politics. The abolitionists provoked. They agitated. To satisfy Southern honor, they must manfully resist. They acted, they offended, and the South could not help but respond. The more moderate, and secure in their seats, might pretend to be above it all and point their fingers both ways. Houston would have none of that and set his sights on overthrowing that comfortable Southern orthodoxy:

at one time it was apprehended that the class of politicians in our country, denominated as Abolitionists, would attempt to agitate, and, if possible, to procure a repeal of the fugitive slave law. That was threatened in the newspapers. The New York Tribune, among others, denounced that law, and proclaimed to the world that it would wage unceasing war upon it until its repeal was accomplished. But, sir, that discordant note had died away before this Congress had assembled. The requiem of Abolition seemed to have been sung. If there were ultras in the South, their dissatisfaction were silenced; they had acquiesced in this great healing measure; and the wounds which had afflicted the body-politic were cicatrized and well. I rejoiced in it; every patriot in the land rejoiced in it.

I had to look it up: citatrized means healed by scarring.

Houston would hear no abolitionist blaming this time. No David Wilmot came forward to provoke confrontation. They could not pin this one on Salmon P. Chase, who wrote only to oppose a measure already before the Congress. This matter did not involve Southern pride, for Houston if not for others. It did not touch on the prickly honor of slaveholders. It did not come out of genuine ambiguities or changed circumstance. The offensive came from from the South. In Kansas-Nebraska, Southern radicals had a purely gratuitous, invented crisis. He would not stand for it:

if it were opposing the whole world, with the convictions of my mind and heart, I would oppose to the last by all means of rational resistance the repeal of the Missouri compromise, because I deem it essential to the preservation of this Union, and to the very existence of the South. It has heretofore operated as a wall of fire to us. it is a guarantee for our institutions. Repeal it, and there will be no line of demarkation. Repeal it, and you are putting the knife to the throat of the South, and it will be drawn. No event o the future is more visible to my perception that that, if the Missouri compromise is repealed, at some future day the South will be overwhelmed.

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